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Raw Deal & Historians’ Errors


A great deal has been written about Raw Deal, in books, articles and posts on the Internet. So two things, but only two, are easily accessed – summaries of the plot and commentaries on the spellbinding cinematography by John Alton. Interpretations of the movie, however, are far less available.

What is uncanny is that plot summaries so often have at least one inaccurate assertion. These errors aren’t about trivia, but key aspects of the story.

Below are a selection of the most frequent (and bewildering) misstatements about the plot, followed by my explanations of what really happens. It is reasonable to conclude that if events in a film can be so erroneously described so often, it means there is something questionable – indeed, troubling – about how critics/historians “see” Raw Deal.


Director: Anthony Mann. Screenplay: Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins. Producer: Edward Small. Cinematographer: John Alton. Music: Paul Sawtell. Art Director: Edward L. Ilon. Editor: Alfred DeGaetano. Cast: Dennis O’Keefe (Joe Sullivan), Clarie Trevor (Pat Cameron), Marsha Hunt (Ann Martin), John Ireland (Fantail), Raymond Burr (Rick Coyle), Curt Conway (Spider), Chilli Williams (Marcy), Tom Fadden (Grimshaw), Regis Toomey [as Richard Fraser] (Police Capt. Fields), Whit Bissell (wife murderer), Harry Tyler (Oscar). Released: Eagle-Lion Films, May 26, 1948. 79 minutes.

“A gangster, Joe Sullivan, is framed by his associates and vows revenge when he is released from prison.” (Carl Macek, Film Noir: An Encyclodpedic Reference to the American Style, The Overlook Press, 1979, 238)

“Intent on getting revenge against the men who framed him.” (Michael L. Stephens, Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995, 300)

“Prison escapee gets caught between two women on his way to confront crime boss that had him framed.” (Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir, McFarland, 1984, 173)

“The tale of framed gangster’s quest for vengeance after he busts out of prison.” (All Movie Guide)

“O’Keefe who breaks jail to pursue a vendetta against the confederates who framed him.” (The BFI Companion to Crime, University of California Press, 1997, 285)

“On the run from prison, seeking revenge on the gangster who framed him.” (Paul Duncan, Film Noir: Films of Trust and Betrayal, Pocket Essentials, 2000, 72)

“A standard revenge yarn.” (Back Alley Noir, official forum for the Film Noir Foundation)

“A desperate man breaks out of prison and begins a relentless and bloody pursuit of those who framed him.” (Elliot Lavine, Roxie Theater program, May 16, 2009)

Joe is not framed. Jeanine Basinger correctly explains:

“As the film opens, Joe is in prison, sent up because he agreed to take a rap for Rick, with the understanding that Rick would get him out and pay him $50,000 for the favor.” (Anthony Mann, Wesleyan University Press, 2007, 42)

Revenge is not the mainspring of the plot. After Joe escapes from prison and gets by a police dragnet, he goes, as planned, to Grimshaw’s Taxidermy shop in Crescent City. He expects to meet Rick and collect $50 G’s. He brings Ann into the shop, and they make small talk with Grimshaw. Then Grimshaw tells Joe that Rick is in the backroom waiting for him.

The film has run over 47 minutes before Joe discovers he’s walked into a trap. Joe has no idea that Rick sent Fantail to the taxidermist’s to kill him.

After more than 57 minutes in the film, in a scene in a San Francisco hotel room just before they are supposed to take a ship to South America, Joe tells Pat he is going to kill Rick. Why? Because Rick tried to have Joe killed, not because Joe thinks he was framed by Rick.

Although Pat strenuously argues with Joe, she can’t convince him to forget about the money, avoid the risk of getting killed and stay with her. Then, her anger rising, she says, “If Ann asked you, I bet you’d do it.” Joe slaps Pat hard in the face, and she leaves the room. Joe pours himself a drink, downs it and throws the glass against a wall.

Soon Pat comes back. She is upset because, in her jealousy about Ann, she almost betrayed Joe to the police. Joe is unsettled because he knows it is his fault, yet he can’t say to her what he should. He grouses, “You’ve forgiven me a thousand times before without my asking.” After a pause, as they sit silently next to each other on a bed, she presses his hand to her cheek. Suddenly, he stands up and tells her to get ready to go to the ship.

The conflict between Pat and Joe is ultimately about Ann, not Rick. Joe gives in to Pat because resolving his complicated romantic situation becomes more important than upholding his sense of an-eye-for-an-eye manliness. At the start of their argument he tells Pat that he has “got to” get revenge. When the scene ends, Joe is willing to forget about Rick and, though she’s not his first choice, to start life anew and abroad with Pat. The total run-time about vengeance – the repeatedly but incorrectly cited theme of the film – is less than five minutes.

“Rick sets up a prison escape for Joe which is, in fact, designed for his capture.” (Jeanine Basinger, 42)

On the contrary, early in the evening before Joe makes his break, Rick explains to Spider, citing one reason after another, that the odds of Joe not being killed by the police are greater than 10,000 to 1. Rick is setting up Joe to be “cut down,” not sent back to his cell.

“Coyle has arranged for Joe to be killed during the break-out in order to avoid confronting him.” (Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, RAW DEAL: The Case of the Flamin’ Man)

Rick “has arranged for Joe to be killed during the break-out.” (Wikipedia)

Rick has only helped arrange for Joe to break out by “opening up three doors and letting him take his chances.” He is confident that, either when Joe is still inside the prison walls or while he is on the lam, the police will kill him.

“Do-gooder Ann Martin is kidnapped by Joe Sullivan and eventually kills Fantail to protect him.” (Alain Silver & Jim Ursini, Film Noir, Taschen, 93)

“Joe Sullivan…enchants Ann so much that she kills for him.” (Bruce Crowther, Film Noir, Columbus Books Limited, 1988, 118)

“Ann shoots Joe’s attacker in the back. After this act of murder….” (Wikipedia)

“After this act of murder, Ann decides she’s in love with Joe.” (Carl Macek, 238)

“A fight with a vicious thug ends when Joe convinces Ann to shoot his attacker in the back. After this act of murder.” (allexperts.com)

Joe doesn’t convince Ann to shoot Fantail. In fact, he doesn’t appear to even see that she has entered the taxidermist’s back room. As Joe and Grimshaw fight, Fantail comes up behind Joe with a large iron pipe. Ann picks up Joe’s gun from the floor and, standing in back of all three men, she takes aim at Fantail and fires.

In the next scene, on a beach outside the taxidermist’s, Joe comforts Ann because she thinks that she has killed Fantail. Joe tells her that she didn’t, and she is relieved.

The next day Fantail is at a gas station and he sees Ann. He kidnaps her and brings her to Rick. When Rick learns Joe is on his way to rescue Ann, he sends Fantail and Spider outside to kill him. In a shootout in the fog across the street from Rick’s apartment building, Spider and Fantail accidentally kill one another, each thinking he is firing his gun at Joe. In other words, Fantail has lots of screen time after Ann shoots him.

“When they return to the motel in the morning, Joe knows it can’t work out with Ann and gets her to take one of the cars back to San Francisco while he and Pat go their separate ways to San Francisco.” (Dennis Schwartz, Raw Deal)

Joe doesn’t send Ann away at a motel. Instead, they split up elsewhere, in an exquisite scene of filmmaking and nonpareil noir. Jeanine Basinger says:

“Ann takes Pat’s place in Joe’s affection, but Joe sends her back to her own world. This is beautifully realized in a scene in which Joe and Ann [after they’ve spent the night together] drive up to meet Pat on a flat stretch of deserted road along the costal highway. Joe stops his car at frame right, a goodly distance from Pat in her car at frame left. A long shot stresses the distance between the two cars, the isolation of all three characters, the hopeless, fatalistic sense of their situation, and the relationship of the two women vis-à-vis Joe. After Joe pushes Ann out of the car, another long shot shows the two women walking silently past each other as they change positions. Pat’s voice on the track says, ‘I suppose I should feel some kind of victory, but I don’t. Walking past her this way…She, too, is just a dame in love with Joe.’ The image of the two women passing without speaking, set against the loneliness of the barren highway, is the equivalent of a bleak modern poem. Years before the alienated European films of the 1960s, Mann captured the same feeling in a cheapie for Eagle-Lion.” (42)

The following quotes refer to the penultimate scene when Joe, trying to rescue Ann, fights Rick.

“Rick inadvertently starts a fire. He jumps out of a window to his death.” (Michael L. Stephens, 300)

“Rick trips over the candles which sets the place on fire as he tries to pull Joe into the fire with him. Rick then jumps out the window in a ball of flames.” (Dennis Schwartz)

It is misleading to say “inadvertently,” and it is mistaken to say Rick “jumps.” Rick shoots Joe first. Joe fires back and the impact of the bullets pushes Rick backward, overturning a candelabra. The candles fall on the floor, setting some draperies on fire. Joe and Rick struggle until Joe spins Rick away and Rick falls backward through the flaming draperies and out a window. The camera shows him on fire, falling toward the street, face up, and screaming.

This “final” scene doesn’t exist:

“Pat, back at her apartment, is resigned to a life of loneliness.” (Michael L. Stephens, 300).

In the actual final scene, Pat steps out of police car in handcuffs just in time to see Joe, mortally wounded by Rick’s gunshot, come out of the front door of Rick’s apartment building. Ann is with him. Joe dies on the sidewalk, in Ann’s arms. The camera shifts across the street to show the street sign for “Corkscrew Alley,” the poor neighborhood where Joe, Pat and Rick grew up. Raw Deal ends with the symbolism of Joe and Ann united because above “Corkscrew Alley” is another sign that says, “Jane St.”